The “General” Election: Zachary Taylor (1848)

The “General” Election: Zachary Taylor (1848)

In 2016, voters and analysts talk about the importance of pre-White House experience and speculate that military experience would provide an advantage in national security issues. The “General” Election is a four-part blog series examining how George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower, all career generals, won the presidency and how effective they were once in office. 
1848 Margin of Victory
Electoral College: Taylor 163; Cass 127; Van Buren 0 
Popular Vote:  Taylor 47.3%; Cass 42.5%; Van Buren 10.1%; 137,933 vote differential

In a letter dated April 30, 1848, General Zachary Taylor wrote “I am no politician.” He was the perfect aloof candidate: he never held elected office, never voted, and professed never to have any presidential aspirations. He joined the army in 1808 and was in uniform for nearly 40 years. 

The Whig Party needed a winner. After winning the presidency in 1840 with another general, William Henry Harrison, it had lost in 1844. Many party leaders did not believe the Whig leader, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, could ever win a presidential election. For them, Taylor’s biggest appeal was that he was a general and a military hero of the Mexican War. Taylor’s campaign used these themes at every opportunity. His 1847 campaign biography was entitled The People's Life of General Zachary Taylor: The Hero of Palo Alto, Monterey, and Buena Vista with Numerous Illustrative Anecdotes. The pamphlets focused on his military service, while campaigners touted Taylor as the second George Washington. Why? Both men were military heroes and stayed above politics. 

This was not the full story, however. Taylor frustrated some Whigs because he would not publically state that he was a member of the party. Pressured by party leaders, the general finally had to write two public letters, saying he supported Whig principles, such as being a less activist president and not using the veto frequently. (Whigs preferred Congress to lead, not the president; they wanted an “anti-Andrew Jackson.”) However, Taylor also wrote that he wanted to be his own man. Additionally, Taylor, a native of Virginia who lived in Louisiana, was a slave owner, and Whigs hoped he could attract votes from southern Democrats. 

The Whigs were competitive in the 1848 election because Taylor was a general and a war hero. He won, but he was not popular enough to help other Whigs get elected; he had short coat-tails. Moreover, Taylor did not garner many crossover Democrat votes; Democrats did not switch to vote for the Whigs. The Democrats kept control of Congress, and Taylor had no mandate.

Once Taylor took office, the Whigs were disappointed. He was actually more of a Unionist, even an “anti-Whig,” by being a more forceful president. Taylor supported California becoming a free state, and southern Whigs disapproved. 

It is ironic that a man who fought in a foreign war had little interest in foreign policy. Taylor left it to Secretary of State John Clayton to handle those matters. Clayton was also important to Taylor because the secretary had Washington, D.C., experience as a former senator. Military historian John Eisenhower, son of the 34th president, wrote in Zachary Taylor: “Notably, they [president-generals] shared a reluctance to enter the political arena in the first place, a futile ambition to stay above politics and be ‘president of all the people,’ and a tendency to be too trusting of their associates in government, most of whom they were unfamiliar with on entering office.” 

TAKEAWAY: History suggests that being a war-hero helps win elections. In Taylor’s case, his military experience did not translate to foreign policy matters. As he stepped into the White House, he was a victim of politics. As an “outsider” candidate, Taylor needed advisers who were experienced in Washington politics.